Arthur Middleton on Anglican Devotion

The pattern of Anglican devotion grows out of liturgical prayer, out of the sacraments rooted in the earth. Anglican piety emerges from a life steeped in the church’s common prayer. It reflects a sense of proper authority at a time when ‘authority’ has become a taboo word within the Church. In consequence the Church has tended to lose its nerve and fail to speak with the authority given to it by divine promise (Raymond Chapman, A Godly and Decent Order ‘Reflections on the Book of Common Prayer’ (PBS Trading Ltd., p15). Chapman goes on to say that clergy and laity, should be prepared to declare their faith, knowing that the strength is not in themselves, and always aware of their own unworthiness:

There is a splendid confidence in the words of absolution, both in the declarative form of Mattins and Evensong and the more direct pronouncing of pardon at Holy Communion. The Collects are well formed, often with ascription of an aspect of the power of God, petition for a specific aid or grace and an application to daily life . . . Throughout there is a deep sense of reverence before the majesty of God. It is truly theocentric, and this is an emphasis, which is sometimes lost or muted in more recent liturgies. (Ibid. p. 15)

The Book of Common Prayer is fundamental to our understanding of all ages of English devotion as the development and consummation of our patristic and biblical tradition. Martin Thornton sees it embodying ‘principles for which the fourteenth-century asceticists had been groping, and in its final form it is the product of the Caroline age.’ (Martin Thornton, English Spirituality, (SPCK, 1963), p257). This complex collection of different sources (ancient liturgies of East and West, Cardinal Quinones, Missal, Breviary, Primer, Luther and Calvin), does have a theology behind it and a characteristic devotion, which inspired it.

Threefold rule

Thornton sees the 1662 Prayer Book and the Rule of St Benedict sharing much in common and that in a real sense from the point of view of ascetical theology, Caroline and modern England remains ‘the land of the Benedictines’. He makes five points of practical interest.

First, the basis of both the Prayer Book and the Rule is the fundamental and biblical, threefold Rule of the Catholic Church: Office-Eucharistpersonal devotion. Mattins and Evensong like the sevenfold Office, are based on the Psalter, both constitute corporate worship, and objective praise.

Secondly, both point to the ideal of a life of contemplative recollection, with private prayer as but a support to this, citing Jeremy Taylor: ‘I would rather your prayer be often than long’ and St Benedict that prayer should be: ‘short and frequent’. Recollection is to be wider than religious exercises in controlling and colouring practical daily life, which in Caroline divinity included all the duties of one’s station. The spirit is ‘to apply oneself frequently to prayer,’ and ‘to keep guard at all times over the actions of one’s life’ respecting God’s presence everywhere. Here the Caroline and Benedictine spirit coincide where recollection is moral rather than affective. In the Rule and the Prayer Book recollection are kept together in the progress towards perfection and both extend daily recollection into the setting of the liturgical year.

Integrated community

Thirdly, the aim of Rule and Prayer Book is to integrate and unite a Christian community that is predominantly lay, the ascetical discipline being for all within it. ‘Ihornton’s fourth point is that ‘both books breathe a sane “domestic” spirit, and are noted for prudence, especially over physical discipline like fasting and mortification.’ Or as St Benedict’s points out in his Prologue the Rule is ‘a school of the Lord’s service, in the setting forth of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous’; ‘a little rule for beginners’ aimed at the needs of the less gifted.

So in this same spirit there emerged companions to the Prayer book like, The Whole Duty of Man, ‘laid down in a plain and familiar way for the use of all,’ Simon Patrick’s A Book for Beginners, or A help to Young Communicants, is another. In it there are ‘directions for such as cannot read’; their masters and mistresses, or neighbours or relations, are invited to read in them their duty about the matter. Like the Christian faith itself, both St Benedict and the Prayer Book are capable of having nurtured saintly doctors and saintly illiterates.

Stable community

Thornton’s fifth point is that liturgical revisers and pastoral planners do not always realize that the Prayer Book, no less than the Rule, presupposes a comparatively compact and very stable community. Despite contemporary problems and reorganization schemes the geographical parish is as much part of the Prayer Book ascetic as the monastery was to the Benedictine Rule. So when the Prayer Book is studied and used, publicly, privately, and constantly, then it takes on its true character of a comprehensive system. The more it is used privately, the more it is seen to be the basis of an integrated religious life. Take, for example, John Durel:

Our Liturgy is an admirable piece of devotion and instruction. It is the marrow and substance of all that the piety and experience of the first five centuries of Christianity found most proper to edification in the public assemblies. It is a compound of texts of Scripture, of exhortations to repentance, of prayers, hymns, psalms, doxologies, lessons, creeds, and of thanksgivings; of forms for the administration of Sacraments and for other public duties of Christians in the Church; and of comminations against impenitent sinners. And all this mixed and diversified with great care expressly to quicken devotion and stir up attention.

(Durel, The Liturgy of the Church of England, cited by Thornton, p262). ND